All-Inclusive Attitude Denise Lancaster didn’t set out to be a principal, but her background as an SLP gave her the skills and attitude to step up as an administrator. In the Limelight
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In the Limelight  |   August 01, 2015
All-Inclusive Attitude
Author Notes
  • Shelley D. Hutchins is content producer/editor for The ASHA Leader. shutchins@asha.org
    Shelley D. Hutchins is content producer/editor for The ASHA Leader. shutchins@asha.org×
Article Information
School-Based Settings / In the Limelight
In the Limelight   |   August 01, 2015
All-Inclusive Attitude
The ASHA Leader, August 2015, Vol. 20, 28-29. doi:10.1044/leader.LML.20082015.28
The ASHA Leader, August 2015, Vol. 20, 28-29. doi:10.1044/leader.LML.20082015.28
Name: Denise Lancaster
Title: Principal, Atholton Elementary School
Hometown: Columbia, Maryland
A word of encouragement started speech-language pathologist Denise Lancaster on the path to becoming a Howard County, Maryland, school principal. That influential person—himself a middle school principal—noted how organized and prepared she always was and felt those skills would translate well into an administrative role.
Lancaster credits her more than 20 years of experience as a school-based SLP for teaching her those skills. Other traits she considers invaluable are her penchant for teamwork, using data to make informed decisions, recognizing others for hard work and knowing the importance of inclusion for all kids.
Lancaster achieved her Administrator 1 certification in just 18 months. This certification gave her the credentials to become an assistant principal, but around the same time she became the county’s head SLP in charge of more than 100 colleagues. That job, she says, was a “significant stepping stone to becoming a school administrator, because I supported SLPs at all levels from preschool to high school.”
In addition to learning the ins and outs of supervision, Lancaster also represented Howard County in a statewide task force to create consistency in implementing special-education services. And when issues arose with unhappy parents, she helped IEP teams navigate delicate meetings.
Lancaster enjoyed the role but wanted to get back to a school setting, so she signed on as an assistant principal. She enjoyed that role at the elementary and middle school levels until a little more than two years ago. That’s when she took and passed her Administrator 2 test, required to be a principal. She just finished her second year as principal at Atholton Elementary School. “All of these experiences allowed me to see a bigger picture,” she says, “but through an SLP’s lens.”
About the students
Lancaster adamantly describes how being an SLP influences her new role. “It’s hard to do things initially as a new principal,” she says, “but now everyone knows my strong feelings about meeting children’s needs in the least restrictive environment.”
A recent example is the fifth-grade promotion ceremony that takes place at the end of each school year. Lancaster made sure all students went across the stage to receive their certificates—she’s equally resolute about not drawing attention to kids with special needs. She also helped her staff create visual cues or other prompts that allowed students with autism spectrum disorder to participate successfully in the event’s speaking or singing segments.
“It’s part of the county’s attitude to make sure kids with special needs get included,” Lancaster says. “Having my background just makes it a lot easier to implement that county-wide culture.”

She joins kids who need assistance at circle time, brainstorms for IEP meetings or helps someone communicate with a student who’s using augmentative and alternative communication—whatever she can do to pitch in.

And staff support
“I see myself as one of the school staff,” Lancaster says, “and I think they see me as someone who works side-by-side with them.” She joins kids who need assistance at circle time, brainstorms for IEP meetings or helps someone communicate with a student who’s using augmentative and alternative communication—whatever she can do to pitch in.
Teamwork infuses everything she does. Staff photos highlight department “teams,” complete with sports jerseys. Decisions are made with considerable input. Lancaster studies data on all students and consults with relevant staff members before deciding just about anything. She feels as if everyone appreciates her carefully informed thought process.
Recognition also defines Lancaster’s supervision style. She goes out of her way to congratulate staff members on their accomplishments. Her background also affects how she works with the school’s SLP. “I use my SLP as a consultant,” Lancaster says. “She comes up with strategies that regular teachers can implement for kids who don’t have IEPs, but need extra guidance. She also advises on Common Core implementation or school-improvement plans.”

“I use my SLP as a consultant. She comes up with strategies that regular teachers can implement for kids who don’t have IEPs, but need extra guidance. She also advises on Common Core implementation or school-improvement plans.”

As a principal, Lancaster mostly strives to do what that former employer did for her—inspire students, staff and parents to achieve more. She’s encouraging her school SLP to present on a communication book she created to county staff and at an ASHA convention. She tells parents to believe their kids are capable of anything.
And she reminds herself of that philosophy every day with a quote from John Quincy Adams hanging in her office: “If your actions inspire others to dream more, learn more, and become more, you are a leader.”
4 Comments
August 21, 2015
Judith Boshart
Denise Lancaster, SLP-Change of jobs to Principal
Denise: I am an SLP with over 25 yrs. of clinical experience in rehabilitation, hospital and private practice. Love your vision regarding implementing tools for schools to utilize to enhance communication, helping with IEP's etc. I have a vision to do the same, however, will be pursuing a Phd degree in Special Education to help in a more gestalt fashion within schools, special need specialized schools (rehab's centers) etc. Reading your article was so encouraging. I would like to know your experiences as you navigate this new journey. I think bringing school SLP's for idea searching throughout the school would be tremendous. The kiddos are at school most of the day with a short time in SP, OT or PT. Inclusion is a great thing, particularly in special education. Your journey encourages me to keep pursuing my aspirations. Would love to be in touch with you. Looking at research ideas in a way that can make a difference for the kiddos at schools (rehab, specialized schools etc.). If you have any ideas to investigate and do research, please let me know. Looking at the Gemiini program to investigate further for class inclusions. A few peer review articles that are in the process that are definitely more evidence based incorporating many visual cues.
August 23, 2015
Florence Mamelli-Zepeda
Loved your article
Hi Denise, I was wanting to know more about how I might become a 'liaison' between the parents and school during IEPs? I feel that being an SLP in the schools has become more about documentation than treatment. The paperwork alone is incredible, and the school where I am is still on manual entry. Bottom line, is I would like to take a move towards the administrative end. I love helping the parents make the transition to tapping into services that are available to them, without compromising the resources available at each of the schools. As we know, they are limited, and I have seen such an increase in abuse of those resources, encouraged by private advocacy services, that it's frightening. Any ideas as to how this kind of position might be pursued, what special credentialing I might need? etc? Thank you.
September 2, 2015
Denise Lancaster
Suggestions for Becoming a Liaison between parents and the IEP process
Florence, As a practicing SLP in the schools with experience in the IEP process, including legal requirements, you already have the credentials to support parents in the IEP process. You can support parents in your current school by making sure they understand what is going to happen in an IEP meeting before the actual meeting. Helping parents understand options and ensuring they have the information they need ahead of time to actively participants in the IEP decision making process are ways to advocate and serve as a liaison for parents at your school. If you are thinking of leaving the school system and advocating/supporting parents and students, you can either volunteer your services through a local parent group such as an autism society or council for exceptional children. If you are looking for a paying job, I believe an SLP license to practice in your state would allow you to charge for your services. I am not aware of a separate certification program that would provide advocate/liaison credentials upon completion. I would check with your state licensing board. As special education procedures continue to change and as school systems increase the number of options for providing services, there is a definite need for liaisons. Wishing you all the best! Denise
September 2, 2015
Denise Lancaster
Pursuing PhD inSpecial Ed
Judith, Hi Judy, Thanks for sharing your plans with me. How exciting to be working on a Phd in Special Education! I don't know anything about the Gemini visual program but I do have a thought about a possible research project. It involves Common Core. I don't know if this is true for all states, but the Common Core has less standards to cover in a school year compared to our previous curriculum in Maryland--especially in math. There is also a better sequence of skills. Less objectives means children have more time to reach mastery of the standards. Mastery is emphasized in common core. In my mind fewer standards can be a huge benefit for students in special education. If there are fewer standards taught, children with special needs have more time for repetition and practice to reach mastery. My thought is that we should begin to see less of a gap between what our students with special needs know and their general ed. peers. Maybe some of these thoughts could turn into a research project. Are you a member of the Council for Exceptional Children? They have a great magazine and they also publish quite a bit of research in the area of special education--maybe there is something recent that could lead into additional research. Best of luck to you! Denise
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August 2015
Volume 20, Issue 8